Austin-based ICON is developing a laser system that would melt the moon’s soil to build structures layer by layer — melting one section of soil, adding more soil on top and then repeating the process. 

ANOTHER APPROACH: This Houston company wants to melt the moon’s soil — for good reason

This machine would be capable of printing nearly any design, and it would save NASA billions of dollars sparing the agency from having to launch aluminum and other building materials into space. It costs more than $1 million for each kilogram of freight sent to the moon.

“If we’re trying to establish a sustainable presence for humans on the surface of the moon, we need a variety of infrastructure,” said Corky Clinton, associate director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Science and Technology Office. “That includes power. It includes consumables. But it also requires a place for the astronauts to live and work for long periods of time.”

ICON was founded in 2017 with the hopes that 3D-printed homes, made with advanced robotics, software and a special cement-based material, could combat the global housing crisis by delivering homes faster and more affordably. Its current projects include a 100-home community outside of Austin and barracks for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

The company caught NASA’s attention during a competition that challenged businesses to imagine 3D printed habitats for the moon. ICON qualified for the finals in 2019 but wasn’t able to participate as it worked on other projects. ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard later took his children to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., and he gave a presentation to Clinton since he was in town. Clinton leads NASA’s development of construction technology for the agency’s moon to Mars effort.

“We were really impressed,” Clinton said.

In late November, NASA announced a $57.2 million contract with ICON to develop its lunar construction technologies. The company has also raised $451 million in venture capital.

ICON expects to send a technology demonstration to the moon later this decade. Its 3D printer that uses laser technology, called the Olympus construction system, will melt the moon’s soil to create a small structural element, said Melodie Yashar, ICON’s vice president of building design and performance.

This would be followed by a larger technology demonstration and, ultimately, infrastructure on the moon.

But the Olympus construction system is just one technology ICON is developing for deep space exploration. It’s also looking at adapting the company’s cement-based 3D printing for Mars. The building material could be created with Martian soil. 

ICON recently built a structure at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to simulate a Mars habitat. NASA is going to have four people live there for an entire year to help the agency identify and remedy the physical, mental and social challenges that arise when living on another planet.


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NASA and Texas company, ICON, develop 3D printer for moon base

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